09/25/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

The 3 Most Important Things to Consider Before Joining a Startup

The decision to accept a job at a startup is not an easy one. For starters, since three out of four startups fail, chances are you'll be left looking for another job within the next few years. What seems like a unique, breakthrough business idea could very easily be just that: a great idea. Or the startup could fail for reasons pertaining to execution, like not taking customer feedback into account during product development or changing course too frequently to keep up with customer demands. Plus, you never know in advance if people will pay for your product, how the competition will respond to your encroachment on their territory, or whether you'll have access to the resources needed to prove out the business model.

And to top off all that risk and uncertainty are startups' generally low salaries, often vanishing equity stakes (as more investment dollars down the road lead to the dilution of your piece of the pie), typically non-existent retirement accounts, and always long (though flexible) hours.

So what's the case for working at a startup? After all, there must be some very compelling advantages since I took the leap despite all those caveats. Yes, there are great reasons to join an upstart beyond the obvious perk of the laid-back atmosphere. For me, it all boiled down to three points:

1. You'll have a direct impact on the business and make a tangible difference in the lives of many

Startups develop solutions to huge market problems and/or leverage major market opportunities both because they are looking to fill an unmet need and because they need to generate revenue and (eventually) become profitable. For the startup employee that translates into the potential to drive change. Indeed, the number one reason I joined eFuneral was to have a hand in re-shaping a multi-billion dollar industry that was obviously in need of innovation.

While the federal government is supposed to regulate the funeral industry and act as a watchdog to ensure that funeral directors don't take advantage of the vulnerability of grieving families, the reality is that transparency is still an excruciating problem for funeral planners. Often, funeral directors get away with shameful, dishonest practices that shouldn't be tolerated -- and certainly wouldn't be in any other industry. I don't typically consider myself a consumer advocate, but when it comes to funeral planners scrambling during a time of crisis to make quick, expensive, emotional, complicated decisions -- I saw a big problem in need of a big solution. And in eFuneral, I saw the opportunity not only to bring transparency to the funeral industry but to be a part of the building process. This was my chance not only to have an impact creating a profitable business and new products that address real-life problems but also to have a direct hand in transforming the funeral planning status quo.

2. You'll hone your skills while simultaneously developing new expertise

Since startups begin as mere ideas trying (often praying) to become viable companies, there's a lot that needs to happen for the business to get from off-the-ground to profitable to sustainable. And as part of a small team with limited resources, you'll be called upon to take on far more responsibilities than just those listed on the job description. But rest assured, the experiences you'll attain at a startup will likely outweigh whatever pay cut you face to join the team.

When I first started at eFuneral, I was hired to help grow the business by onboarding funeral directors as eFuneral members. But within months, we realized that we needed to dedicate more resources to developing our user base. The result? My role expanded to helping grow the business via funeral planners and key end-of-life influencers. Practically speaking, that meant the opportunities to take on a leadership role, directing eFuneral's marketing strategies and diving into activities like content creation, search engine optimization, public relations, and advertising. I've even learned just enough code to be dangerous.

3. You'll have real responsibility, be held accountable, and have the authority to take ownership over your work

Startup founders often expect employees to step up and tackle their goals, no matter what setbacks come their way. In fact, all startup employees should expect obstacles around limited time, money, and reputation and therefore guard those scarce resources as if they were their own. Of course, you shouldn't be frugal or become a workaholic to the point of detriment, but you should tap into your resourcefulness to meet your goals within budgetary and time constraints.

In my case, I not only take advantage of my professional network and eFuneral's advisers for support and guidance, I also use free tech tools like MailChimp, an email service that enables you to create, send, and track email newsletters, Tackk, a ridiculously simple tool for creating and sharing webpages, and Rapportive, a Gmail plug-in that gives you social information on people emailing you. Additionally, I take advantage of free trials from services like Moz, a marketing analytics service that provides detailed tips for optimizing your website, and KissMetrics, a website analytics tool that identifies gaps in the conversion process. But at the end of the day, accomplishing lofty goals with limited resources takes lots (LOTS) of creative thinking and a commitment to just finding a way.

While there's no one path to success, happiness, or career satisfaction, taking the leap and joining a startup is a rewarding road to travel for those motivated by challenges, accomplishment, and impact. And in the (likely) event that your startup does fail, rest assured that the skills you pick up working for an upstart will power anything you decide to do next -- be it launching your own company, joining the corporate world, or taking another shot at working at a startup.